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Former Levi Strauss executive Jennifer Sey on decision to leave company over Covid 'free speech' controversy

Key Points
  • Jennifer Sey says speaking out against school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic cost her a job as a senior executive at Levi Strauss.
  • She resigned on Sunday and refused a $1 million severance package in order to be able to speak out.

In this article

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Former Levi Brand president on why she left the company over views on Covid school closures

Speaking out against school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic was a decision that Jennifer Sey says came at the cost of her job as a senior executive at Levi Strauss, according to an interview Thursday morning on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Sey told co-anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin that she was "absolutely pushed out" of the San Francisco-based clothing giant after she refused to stop speaking out on her views that school closures were ultimately harmful to students. She said she resigned on Sunday and refused a $1 million severance package because it would have required her to sign a nondisclosure agreement about why she left the company.

"It was made clear to me that there was not a place for me given the controversial nature of what I had said over the past two years about kids and school," Sey said.

The company stressed in a statement to CNBC that Sey was not forced out, but chose to resign, and the specific nature of Sey's public comments contradicted health and safety guidance.

"Levi Strauss & Co. prides itself on being a values-led company with a legacy of standing up for the causes that are important to our employees and our communities. We empower our employees to do the same. Jen's statements about Covid-19 public health measures undermined the guidelines we were following to ensure the health and safety of our employees and consumers. All of our leaders – and especially executive officers – have a responsibility to put our values and health and safety at the forefront of their actions. This was especially true during the global pandemic. Jen decided to leave the company and resigned," according to an email from the company's media team.

Sey said during the CNBC interview, "I made the decision to leave on my own, on my own accord and on my own terms so I could speak freely. I feel the issues at stake here are not just kids but free speech more broadly and accepting a package to stay silent would fly in the face of that. And I didn't want to accept that package."

Sey joined Levi Strauss in 1999 as an assistant marketing manager and worked her way up through the company. She was named Levi's brand president in 2020. Throughout her career, she says, she's been an outspoken advocate for children and minorities. Sey said Levi Strauss and its senior leadership team had no issues when she shared her support for Elizabeth Warren in the Democratic primary and when she expressed her sadness over the racially motivated murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.

It shouldn't be a condition of employment to 100% align with your employer's views.
Jennifer Sey, former Levi brand president

That support ended, she claims, when she spoke out on public school closures in San Francisco in the wake of the pandemic. In an online essay published on Monday, Sey wrote that in the summer of 2020, Levi Strauss's head of corporate communications warned her to tone down her comments, saying that when she spoke, she spoke on behalf of the company. She responded: "My title is not in my Twitter bio. I'm speaking as a public school mom of four kids."

Sey says she was continually contacted by executives with Levi Strauss as well a board member, urging her to rethink her statements.

Schools across the country were closed periodically during the pandemic as a way to curtain infection rates. In her essay, Sey wrote that school closures would "fall heaviest on disadvantaged kids in public schools, who need the safety and routine of school the most." She wrote that she relocated her family to Denver from San Francisco last year so that her children could attend school in person.

In her essay, Sey also claimed that at a dinner in the fall of 2021, Levi Strauss CEO Chris Bergh told her she was on track to become the next CEO, but that her outspoken comments about public school closings were getting in the way. "All I had to do was stop talking about the school thing," Sey wrote.

"It shouldn't be a condition of employment to 100% align with your employer's views," she said during the "Squawk Box" interview. "And it shouldn't be an HR violation to stand up in defense of children."

To join the CNBC Workforce Executive Council, apply at cnbccouncils.com/wec.